|IT'S RAINING WHEN MY TRAIN pulls into the station, and
thanks to the thick fog I haven't a clue where the station is relative
to the city. After joining an anarchic queue for cabs, I finally find myself
on my way to my bed & breakfast.
Ottawa is a small town, basically -- a rough but well-sited
logging outpost that was chosen quite blithely to be our nation's capitol:
imagine a Victorian version of Brasilia. The government basically employs
the half of the town that the new high-tech industries don't hire. Downtown,
the parliament buildings on the choicest edge of the river dominate in
a benign way, though office buildings, blocks and complexes housing countless
bureaucrats and clerks can be found all over the city.
b&b is off Elgin street, one of the main drags in the town. After
checking in, I set out in the drizzle, north toward the river, trying to
hail a cab. I'm almost at the parliament buildings when I finally flag
one, and ask the driver to take me to the War Museum. I could have walked,
since he lets me off barely a couple of blocks later, but I hate walking
in the rain.
War Museum is housed in Vimy House, an old government edifice on the
edge of the river, between the Mint and the National Gallery. Constantly
cramped for space, it's apparently been promised a new home, but I doubt
that the budget approval is a high priority.
I decide to make it my first stop to get me in a frame
of mind suitable for my job here -- researching my father's time in the
Royal Canadian Air Force during WW2. I've actually been looking forward
to the war museum for a long time, which is probably why it turns out to
be a bit of a disappointment.
The museum's collection is apparently quite vast, but
space restrictions and slim budgets keep most of it either in storage or
on display at other museums. The displays are mostly dated, and usually
involve a secondhand shop dummy dressed in a uniform, posed in a display
case or diorama. In some cases, it seems that displays haven't been given
a re-think in decades; a mannequin wearing a Japanese uniform, standing
on guard by the entrance of an exhibit devoted to Canadian POWs in the
the Far East, has the evil, slant-eyed face of propaganda films -- another
mannequin dressed in an SS uniform has been given the cruel, handsome features
of a textbook Goebbels aryan.
There was a controversy here a year or two ago about Hitler's
car -- an armoured Mercedes-Benz that the museum was given by private collector years ago, and which it considered selling to fund expansion. The outcry was immediate, both from alarmists who feared that it would fall into the hands of neo-nazi fetishists, and from more sensitive types who thought
it probably the most powerful exhibit in the museum. It frankly left me
cold, and I wondered about the kind of people who might feel a powerful
attraction to a dictator's car.
Don't get me wrong -- I'm completely behind the War Museum
and its goals, and I feel a deep sympathy to their funding and space problems.
If anything needs to re-examine its mandate and goals with some regularity,
it's a War Museum, hopefully without falling victim to political correctness
and the kind of banal thinking that begins and ends with a statement like
"war is evil". Yes, it's evil -- it's also a considerable aspect of our
history, and won't be going away anytime soon. Let's deal with that, instead
of using examinations of war as an opportunity to voice our impeccable